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By Tom Henderson • Staff Writer • 

Ghosts of Spirit Mountain

The Weekly World News, the lurid supermarket tabloid that specialized in Elvis and Bigfoot sightings, reported otherwise in 2000. It claimed the 13,000-year-old meteorite, which tribal members hold sacred, had warned them telepathically of an imminent war and earthquake.

Cole, the director of the museum, just rolls her eyes.

The Weekly World News went out of print in 2007, and Cole doesn’t miss it. There are enough wild stories about native people without it, she said.

The new museum exists to detail the history of Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde as it really happened — that, and to preserve the tribes’ artifacts. “It feels good to know our artifacts are being properly cared for for our children and our children’s children,” she said.

The real story of the largest meteorite found in North America — and how a piece of it ended up on display in the museum — is far more interesting than anything cooked up by a supermarket tabloid, Cole said.

The meteorite was venerated by members of the Clackamas tribe, which occupied what is now West Linn, for untold generations before its “discovery” by European settler Ellis Hughes in 1902 on land then owned by Oregon Iron and Steel. Recognizing its geological significance, Hughes tried to claim ownership by secretly moving it onto his property.

That was no mean feat, as the meteorite weighs 32,000 pounds and Ellis’ property was the better part of a mile away. Executives at Oregon Iron and Steel discovered what Ellis was up to and launched a lawsuit.

The meteorite was bought by William Dodge for $26,000 in 1905 and displayed at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. Then it was donated to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Members of the Clackamas tribe, now part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, sued in 1999 for the return of their sacred meteorite, known to them as Tomanowos, under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Museum officials struck a deal with tribal leaders. They authorized tribal members to conduct a private cerermony with the meteorite once a year and awarded the tribe ownership should the museum ever cease to maintain it on display.

Meanwhile, the tiny piece of meteorite at the local tribal museum is the closest many tribal members and visitors will get.

Veronica Montano, who oversees collections for the museum, said she finds all this history utterly fascinating.

“I’ve learned a lot about tribal history in this job,” she said. “It’s all interesting to me because I am a tribal member. It’s all close to home. I never thought about working in archives until the job sort of fell into my lap.”

Montano started started as a secretary with the tribe.

“When someone left and took another position, I got the job in collections,” Montano said. “She taught me everything she could.

“I take in donations and process and enter all of the data in the database. I handle paper and archive donations and photographs.”

While the museum maintains a large collection of artifacts, photographs and documents, the actual exhibit space occupies a corner of what used to be Grand Ronde Middle School. Tribal leaders bought the eight-acre school site in 2011.

Phase 1 of creating a museum and cultural center focused on converting the old school to offices for cultural programs and services, as well an archaeology laboratory, archives and exhibit space. Fundraising for Phase 1 began June 5, 2014.

Phase 2 calls for an expanded main exhibit hall with 4,500 square feet of space.

There will also be temporary exhibit galleries, as well as additional space for creating public exhibits and processing and storing artifacts. There will also be a room for large gatherings for meetings, movies or conferences.

Cole said the completed museum will be approximately 17,000 square feet, including the 4,500-square-foot gallery. “We’re almost half way there,” she said.

Cole has worked for the tribes’ cultural department for 12 years. In addition to overseeing the museum, she teaches the Chinuk language for both high school and adult students.

“I have the best job in the world,” she said. “When we have groups of school children come in, everyone in the department comes to together to give the children a great experience.”

Tribal leaders have been working closely with officials at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. The Newberg center just opened a new exhibit titled “We Are Grand Ronde.” (See related story above.)

Rob Dailey, executive director of the Newberg center, said the two facilities share much in common. However, he said, there are also key differences.

“Their mission is literally to preserve and carry forward a living culture that is in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth,” he said. “So they have a really critical mission. Preserving it is a pretty tricky business that they’ve jumped fully into.”

The tribes’ shared history begins in the 1850s, when 27 Native tribes and bands from Western Oregon, Southwestern Washington and Northern California were forced onto the Grand Ronde reservation.

Congress legislated the tribe out of official existence with passage of the Western Oregon Indian Termination Act in 1954. After years of effort, it won formal status back when Congress passed the Grand Ronde Restoration Act in 1983.

After a long and sometimes tormented tribal history, Cole said, it is important for people to know the story of Grand Ronde. It is exciting to be in on the ground floor of such a large-scale effort to preserve tribal history, she added.

“We’re just learning,” she said. “We’re getting more ideas and adding to it all of the time.”


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